The past couple of months have been quite busy. On top of my usual day job, I’ve been fortunate enough to take Midnight Sweatlodge on the road for a few readings and a festival, and I’ve also had the opportunity to work on some features for CBC’s upcoming 8th Fire project. While these storytelling and sharing experiences have been immensely fulfilling, this fall, nothing has warmed my heart and lifted my spirit as much as reconnecting with the traditional language of my people. Every Monday and Wednesday evening since early September, I’ve been taking Ojibway language classes at Carleton University. It’s a unique program available to students for course credit, and it’s also open to Ottawa community members (like me) for free. I’ve neglected Anishinaabemowin for far too long, and being able to learn it again has been fun, enlightening, and most importantly, it’s been healing.
As a small child I learned a handful of words and phrases growing up in Wasauksing. The older generations offered a few grains of the language here and there, but it never dominated everyday dialogue. The elders often spoke it regularly with each other, but rarely with us kids. I suppose there was still a great deal of shame attached to it as a “primitive” language. We went to Ryerson Indian Day School on the reserve, and when that became Wasauksing Kinomaugewgamik in the late 1980s, I remember learning a lot more Anishinaabemowin in school. It became like a refurbished old toy for me and my peers – we shared jokes and funny words in Ojibway because we thought it was neat. But we never really understood how fragile it was, or how important it was for us to maintain it.
Then we all went to high school off-reserve. Some of us kept it up, but for me, it dropped from my priorities. I really don’t know why. I became interested in sports, music, literature, and popular culture, and I guess my native language didn’t fit in with those western ambitions. Learning how to play a D minor chord on guitar was more important than knowing how to say the act in Ojibway. I then went to Germany for a year and rehashed some lines for the novel benefit of my hosts, but after a while that didn’t feel right, so I stopped.
Soon after returning to Canada I moved to the city to go to University and I sparsely revisited Anishinaabemowin until now. I have been an urban Indian for 13 years, spending time in Toronto, Winnipeg, and now Ottawa. I always found it somewhat difficult to find ways to speak Ojibway in each city. Every time I went home to Wasauksing I attempted to pick the language back up through conversations with my grandmother and other relatives, but when you’re only doing that once every couple of months, it’s never gonna stick. They always seemed like feeble attempts just to make myself feel better as an Anishinaabe person. So there’s always been a fog of guilt hanging over my head that’s just been easier to ignore than to try to clear.
But now at age 32 I have the opportunity to devote some serious time to reconnecting with it, and I’m thankful that my classmates, friends, family, and Carleton have allowed me to learn with them. Some may find it ironic that it took a contemporary classroom in a higher learning setting for me and my peers to accomplish this, but this shared understanding transcends the classroom. We challenge each other. We laugh. We continue our dialogue well beyond the classroom. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had in a very long time. But as my friend Geraldine pointed out to me the other day, although we may not know it, we’re healing. This language was supposed to die. But mere decades after the authorities tried to beat it from us, here we are, speaking it proudly.
Nmwendis. Wii Anishinaabe-gaagiigido. Wii mino bemaadiz. Miigwech ndikid.